The compass on Zuko’s wrist had always pointed south. For as long as he could remember.
“It’s good luck that yours has pointed,” Ursa told him. “It means that your soulmate wants you to look for her.” She didn’t mention that the steadiness of its direction probably meant that his soulmate was very, very far away. She also didn’t mention the leather cuff that hugged her own wrist tightly. Other couples would have held their wrists above their spouse’s and showed how the compasses spun, and spun, and spun, but Ursa and Ozai never did.
Everyone went away. Cousin Lu Ten and Uncle Iroh and his mother, but not the compass. It stayed steady. No matter what Azula said, the single dot on her wrist, the absence of an arrow, showed something that Zuko had but Azula didn’t.
Then, when Zuko was thirteen, he put his hands up to protect his face. Ozai’s fingers wrapped around his wrist, and he screamed until his ears rang.
Sokka’s compass didn’t point at anyone in the Southern Water Tribe. He knew because he’d gone outside of the village and it pointed far into the distance. Hakoda hefted his son onto his shoulders and said,
“Maybe your soulmate is from the Northern Tribe. Your Gran-Gran followed her mark all the way here from the North.”
Sokka’s voice was filled with wonder. “You really think I could go all the way to the North Pole?”
“Maybe someday,” Hakoda said, to ensure that his son didn’t run off that very night. “When you’re older.”
Everyone went away. His mom died, and his dad went to war, and Sokka’s mark started to move. His soulmate must have been travelling all around the world. Katara’s mark was still a simple black dot, which, as she got older and older, could have meant any number of things, none of them good. Sokka thought she was jealous, but she never let it show.
And then they found Aang in the Iceberg. Katara’s compass, appearing in an instant, spun wildly on her wrist. When Sokka next paid attention to his, it pointed back the way they’d just come, and he felt sick.
Uncle didn’t wear a cuff over the scar of his dead compass. It was unseemly. Zuko covered his own as all the Fire Nation did, and with a far more shameful reason than most. It was dead, even if the person attached to it wasn’t. Zuko thought about that all the time. He thought about the fact that his constant moving would make it harder for a soulmate who was looking to track him. If they were even looking.
Then he found the Avatar, whose bare compass spun when he held the girl’s hand, Zuko felt… jealous. The Avatar had a mark, a soulmate. Everyone did, either that or their grief to carry with them. Everyone except Zuko. He wouldn’t even know if his soulmate had died. Maybe she already had. Probably that. Zuko hoped it had been quick.
Yue didn’t have a compass. No black dot for a soulmate who wasn’t born, who wasn’t themselves yet, or had rejected you. No scar to mark a death. Just… nothing. Sokka held his over her wrist anyways, just to be sure. It stayed, steadily pointed away from the the North Pole. Sokka imagined that it was easier for people who weren’t from the Poles. Living there meant that most of the world lived either North or South of you.
When she was gone and Sokka’s compass pointed resolutely on, he almost hated it. He hated that fate had known she would never have a soulmate.
Katara said, “Gran-Gran’s stories always said that the phases of the moon were the spinning of its compass.”
Sokka hoped that it was true. He hoped that Yue liked whoever it pointed at. He knew for certain that they would like her.
In the Earth Kingdom, nobody covered their compasses. Nobody. Not old married couples whose matched wrists spun as they held hands, not children with dots waiting for their soulmates to be born. Not lonely people with scars left for memory. Uncle fit in perfectly. Zuko very much did not. He gritted his teeth and got rid of his cuff. For protection. For the cover. To his shock, nobody said anything about it at all. They stared, but they kept their mouths shut, except once.
The girl in Ba Sing Se had stopped him in the street. “Did he do that?” She asked. She gestured between his wrist and his face. It took Zuko a second to realize what she meant.
She wanted to know if his soulmate had burned him. Honestly, Zuko shook his head. “I don’t even know who she is.”
The girl held up her wrist. There was a jagged scar through where her compass should have been. “I didn’t want it to be sexual,” she said, matching his honesty. “He didn’t like it.”
It was absolutely barbaric. There wasn’t anything Zuko could really say except to continue with the honesty. There was a virtue in anonymity, after all. “My father did it.”
The girl hugged him, and then she was gone, like she’d never been there at all.
The best thing about going back to the Fire Nation was getting to put his cuff back on.
Katara’s mark was scarred over, but black underneath. Sokka couldn’t stop looking at it. He’d never seen anyone’s look like that before. But when she held it over Aang’s wrist, it still spun beneath her skin, and nothing else mattered. It was lucky for her that the Fire Nation covered their marks. Even Sokka couldn’t have explained that one away.
Sokka’s compass always pointed in the direction he was going, these days. It was almost a nice change, after so long pointing back.
Then he woke up on the day of the eclipse. He checked it before the invasion began to discover a single, black, dot.
It would have made sense for Sokka’s soulmate to see a dot. When you’re sneaking around, you don’t necessarily want to be found, even by your soulmate, but Sokka had been hiding for months with Aang and he’d never tried to hide from his soulmate before. And now his soulmate was hiding from him.
It felt wrong. Sokka put the cuff back on, and went about as best he could. Soon all was forgotten in the chaos of battle.
Zuko sometimes thought about trying to peel off the scar on his wrist and see if there was still a trace of his mark underneath. It was what Azula would have done in his situation, he thought. But she wasn’t in his situation, and never had been.
It wasn’t fair. What his father had done wasn’t right. Not to Zuko or Uncle, and not to Zuko’s soulmate, either. He stood in the underground bunker, and told him as much. Even with the eclipse dousing his flame, Zuko felt stronger than he’d ever had.
“Don’t you want to know about your mother?” Asked Ozai, voice sneering.
While Zuko’s back was turned, he’d unbuckled his ornamental cuff, and he held up the single black dot on his wrist as if it were a trophy.
Zuko had always assumed that his parents didn’t match. They’d never shown him that they did, like Lu Ten said Uncle and Aunt had. But despite the fact that his father was a liar, Zuko believed him. He knew, in that moment, that his mother was still alive.
Usually, Aang and Katara held hands. Like, a lot. But in the Western Air Temple, they’d stopped. Sokka couldn’t stop watching the odd dance play out, where Katara would twitch her fingers towards him, and Aang would pull away. Then, a couple seconds later, the opposite would happen.
“It’s like watching peacock-rabbits try to mate,” Toph said, “Hopping around with all their feathers out, jumping at shadows.”
Sokka didn’t ask them what it was about. He wasn’t sure he wanted to know.
Katara, the – Aang –, and all the Earth Kingdom people except for Toph weren’t wearing cuffs. Zuko was almost relieved that Toph and Sokka were. If they hadn’t been, people might have asked him to take his off, too. He didn’t want that.
“It doesn’t really matter whether I’m wearing my cuff or not,” Toph pointed out once, when the topic came up at dinner just after Zuko and Aang came back from the Sun Warriors. “I don’t like people knowing something about me that I don’t. Besides, my parents are loaded. There’s no way they’re gonna let me just marry my soulmate.”
Sokka looked outraged. Zuko hid a smile at the comic expression on his face. “Hey, our dad’s the chief and he wouldn’t stop us from marrying romantic soulmates if we had them. Right, Katara?”
“Right,” Katara muttered under her breath.
Aang, cheerfully, said, “the monks taught us that our compasses didn’t guide us to romantic fulfillment but to a person who could bring us knowledge, about ourselves or about our destinies. And I guess that worked! Katara brought me the knowledge of waterbending.”
The girl looked as uncomfortable as Zuko felt whenever people talked about soulmates. He wondered if it would be helpful to say something.
“Well,” Toph said, “that makes it three nations against one. Looks like you waterweirdos are outnumbered. Sorry.”
She didn’t sound the least bit sorry. “Hey,” Sokka complained. “Why does it get to be three on one? It’s not like the Fire Nation talks about their compasses enough for us to know anything.”
And just like that, everyone was looking at Zuko. He steadied himself, imagining that he was back in Ba Sing Se, just some anonymous stranger. “In the Fire Nation, most people marry someone of the same class. I don’t know if they’re soulmates or not. There must be someone who keeps track of that, but I’ve never asked and most people are private about it anyways. The cuffs cover arrows and dots and scars alike.”
In one of the only bits of good luck of Zuko’s life, they didn’t ask which was under his.
Ty Lee grabbed Mai’s hand as they were arrested. Under their cuffs, two compasses spun and spun and spun.
Sokka’s soulmate was on Ember Island. His heart pounded in his chest like a drum. There was no way it wasn’t true, because, when he finally, finally took his cuff off to check it, they were close enough that the compass actually could go all the way around in the course of a day.
“Calm down,” Suki told him. She wasn’t his soulmate, and the scar on her wrist said as much. But she was his best friend. “If your soulmate is here, it just means you’re probably matched with some rando Fire Nation peasant.”
Well, obviously that was statistically true, but, “Yeah, but I’m telling you, it has to be Zuko. It always pointed where we’d been when he was chasing us, and it pointed at the capital before the invasion, and the last time I noticed this was in Ba Sing Se.” He held up his wrist to show the faint movement of the compass as Sokka’s soulmate walked around the house.
“If Zuko’s your soulmate, he must know too, right? The Fire Nation takes their cuffs off in private, and you didn’t keep yours covered much before now. He’d have been able to see.”
It was true. Once, Sokka would have assumed Zuko was just too much of a jerk to care about that sort of thing, but he knew differently, now. Zuko cared too much to be that sort of jerk.
“He’ll tell me when he’s ready,” Sokka said, and tried to act nonchalant about it. Suki ruffled his hair.
“If you’d found out about this when we first met, you would have stuck a finger in his face and demanded an explanation.”
It was true. Well, maybe Zuko wasn’t the only one who’d grown up in the last year.
In the final scene of the play, Fake-Zuko’s cuff came off to reveal a skin coloured sleeve. Or, as the actors said, a totally blank wrist. Zuko walked out of the play.
It wasn’t the first time they’d mocked someone’s compass. In the play, Sokka’s was on his stomach for some reason, and always pointed to food. Aang’s and Katara’s were right, but aggressively platonic, which Zuko thought was probably inaccurate. But it was the first thing they’d done to Zuko that felt like a stab in the heart.
Sokka found him hiding on a balcony as people filed out. He looked less cheerful than usual as he took a seat beside Zuko.
“Yue didn’t have a mark,” he said, looking up into the night sky. To Zuko’s silence he added, “you know, my girlfriend who turned into the moon.”
Zuko hadn’t even known there were people who really didn’t have marks. It happened in stories, but not to real people. “I’m not. Markless, I mean. I’m not the moon either I guess.”
Sokka turned to offer him a smile. “That’s good.”
“Not really,” Zuko said. Against his better instincts, he fumbled the buckles of his cuff undone, and they both stared down at the rough scarring.
“That’s not what it looks like when your soulmate dies.”
Zuko tried to imagine he was talking to that earth peasant girl. He hoped that wherever she was, she was okay. “No. It’s what it looks like when you throw your hands up to protect your face.”
He raised his hand up to make the picture clear, holding the scar on his wrist beside the scar on his face. Sokka fumbled his own cuff off.
“Zuko,” he whispered, “can you give me your wrist?” The quiet wasn’t like him.
Sokka’s compass was pointed right at Zuko. It could have been a coincidence, but the spirits weren’t that kind. Zuko tried to steady himself as he offered his wrist to Sokka.
Sokka laid his own over it, and they watched the stark black triangle spin in confirmation.
“I’m sorry,” Zuko started to say, and stopped abruptly as Sokka kissed him.
They went back to the group with their cuffs on for propriety’s sake. Zuko knew he was blushing. Sokka held his hand. Invisible to the rest of the world, their wrists marked the match.
That night, Sokka snuck into Zuko’s room. After narrowly escaping a fireball to the face, he perched on the side of Zuko’s bed. The prince rubbed at his eyes sleepily.
“What is it?”
Sokka took his hand again. Even in the faint light of the moon through the window, he could make out the spinning of the compass that marked their match. It would have been worth the trip upstairs just for that, but Sokka had something else in mind.
“You told me you were protecting your face,” Sokka whispered. He knew that Aang was in the next room over. “You didn’t tell me what from.”
He’d debated asking, but the truth was, he needed to know. Zuko’s scars had been old before they met, which meant he’d gotten them very young. There were only so many people who would be able to hurt a bender of Zuko’s skill, especially one with people like the Dragon of the West at his side.
Zuko looked down at their hands. His hair, messy from sleep, fell across his face. He didn’t say anything and, after a moment, Sokka realized that there were silent tears streaming down his face. He course corrected.
“You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to. I’m sorry I made you uncomfortable. Just… I’ll leave. I’m really sorry.”
Zuko’s fingers wrapped around Sokka’s wrist, covering his compass. They were shaking. “My father,” he said, as if each word cut his throat. “I was thirteen. But I remember, it always pointed south. Always. I should have known that would mean you.”
Sokka wanted to kiss him, but, remembering the Suki Incident, he asked, “can I hug you?” And, when Zuko nodded, pulled him close. After a minute, by mutual consent, they laid down in Zuko’s bed in a tangle of limbs and sheets.
Zuko’s room was smaller than Sokka had expected. Smaller than his own, certainly, with a shorter bed – their feet were off the end – and a lot more things in it, paintings and books and even a few children’s toys.
“This was your room.”
Zuko hummed in agreement. “Yeah. It felt weird sleeping anywhere else. You and Katara are in the guest rooms. Suki’s in Azula’s. Aang is in the room Lu Ten used to take, when him and Uncle would come visit.” That left Toph. “I put Toph in the master bedroom. I thought she’d find it funny.”
Yeah, that made sense. Sokka lifted Zuko’s hand to his lips and kissed where the compass would have been. He’d never seen Zuko without his cuff before that evening, and, as much as Sokka hated what he saw, he was glad Zuko had shared it with him. Behind him, Zuko’s breath hitched.
“I’m glad it was you,” Sokka said.
“You shouldn’t be.”
Oh, Zuko. “Maybe. But I always hoped my soulmate would be someone who would want to follow through on all my best plans with me, and here you are.”
Zuko snorted. “What best plans?”
Sokka was halfway through being offended before he realized it was a joke. Then he reached back to muss up Zuko’s hair. “See, and a sense of humour too. We’re basically made for each other.”
And, in a way, they were.
When Aang vanished, Katara’s mark became a black dot under her scar.
Bitterly, she said, “wherever he is, I guess he doesn’t want to be found.”
Silently, Sokka and Zuko agreed to keep their marks a secret, for a little while longer.
Before they left, Zuko pulled Uncle off to the side. Iroh went willingly, one bushy eyebrow raised.
“What is it, nephew?” He asked. His wrist was bare, as it always was, and Zuko thought about the fact that Sokka’s wrist might be the same, scarred and bare, after all this.
Zuko kept his voice to a whisper. He didn’t want Katara and the others, who still didn’t know, to overhear. “Sokka is my soulmate. I need you to promise to look after him for me, if I don’t make it back. Make sure he inherits… I don’t know, something nice.”
Uncle looked like he really, really wanted to say something wise. Instead, he pulled Zuko into another hug and promised to do as he asked. It wasn’t much of a relief, but it was all he could really do, at a time like this.
“Is it worth it?” Zuko asked. Uncle had lived so many years now, knowing that the other half of himself was dead.
“Yes,” he replied. There was not a hint of hesitation in his voice.
Suki grabbed his wrist as they lifted off into the air. She turned it over, and they stared together at the grey of it. Not a scar, not yet, but almost gone.
“What?” Toph demanded.
Sokka tried to say something, but found he couldn’t. Suki turned to Aang. “Is there any way for you to help this thing move faster?”
Aang turned over his own wrist. The compass for Katara was as black and solid as it had ever been.
“Zuko,” Sokka finally said, the only word that mattered. “It’s Zuko.”
Aang grabbed Toph’s hand, said, “we’ll see what we can do!” And pulled her away.
It was good that they were gone. Sokka really, really didn’t want to cry in front of them both.
It was him, Suki, and the Fire Lord – ex-Fire Lord – in the control room. Sokka looked at Zuko’s father.
“You have anything to say for yourself?” As predicted, the – Ozai, right? – didn’t answer. Sokka pushed on. “Well, you shouldn’t. Against all the odds, despite what you did to my people and to my mother and to Zuko, we still found each other and kicked your butt. So ha!”
His silence was almost more galling than any words he could have said.
Sokka stared at his compass, ignored the throbbing pain in his leg, and watched the grey for any signs of it fading into white.
It stayed steady, lifeless but not dead, and pointed resolutely towards the Palace.
Katara was already bending water up and onto Zuko’s chest before she knelt beside him. He was awake, which was probably a good sign. He smiled at her, and then winced as she touched the burnt mark the lightning had left on him.
“Good job,” he said. “Ow!”
The energy of the lightning had disrupted the regular rhythms of his body. Katara dived deeper with her healing. “What were you thinking? You could have died! You stupid idiot.”
Zuko kept smiling at her. Katara didn’t think she’d ever gotten such a good look at his teeth. “Well, you would have died for certain. I couldn’t allow that."
“And you could still die. This is complicated healing, Zuko.”
That wiped the smile off his face. “I’m sorry, Katara.” He paused. “Hey, at least we know Aang did okay.”
Katara’s compass was black under her scar, back in the shape of an arrow. “And Mai. I don’t think I feel any fresh scarring in your wrist.” She’d seen Zuko’s wrist before, in the tunnels of Ba Sing Se.
Zuko gave her a confused look. “Mai’s Ty Lee’s compass, not mine. But… I think I’d have felt it if something happened to Sokka. I think more scar tissue forming under the burn would probably hurt.”
Well, that was a surprise. Katara was going to have words with her brother when she saw him again. “Well, you’d better not die then.”
“Sounds like a good idea to me.”
By the time they set down, Sokka’s mark was back to its regular shade and his heart had almost stopped twisting in his chest like someone was trying to strangle him. Suki and Toph helped carry him down into the palace. Zuko, who was leaning on Katara, offered an awkward wave.
“Hey, guys. Not dead.”
Sokka held up his wrist. “No, but you came kinda close, yeah?”
Katara gave Zuko a look that radiated irritated disappointment. “Someone thought it was a good idea to take a lightning bolt for me in the middle of fighting his sister in a ceremonial duel to the death.”
There was the twisting in Sokka’s chest again, but different, this time.
In the end, Suki and Katara helped them to bed together, and they lay there, not saying much, and revelled in the fact that they were alive.
Izumi’s compass went from a black dot to a steady triangle pointed vaguely east when she was five years old. Since it was an Important and Exciting development, Zuko insisted that they have a Special Family Dinner, with honey cakes, which were her favourite. As they ate, he and Sokka explained what the compasses meant, how they could point to friends or future spouses, how it would always be her choice whether she wanted to marry her compass-mate or somebody else, and how she would be able to follow it to them, when she was older.
Izumi took it all very seriously, and asked a lot of questions. In the end, Zuko and Sokka unclasped their cuffs, and held up their bare wrists for her inspection. She watched, mesmerized, as Sokka’s spun in circles, trying to figure out which direction to point. Then, with very deliberate care, she touched Zuko’s scar.
“It’s okay,” he assured her, “it doesn’t hurt.”
She blinked up at him. “Did a bad guy do it?”
Zuko smiled at her. “A man did it, but even he couldn’t keep me from finding your dad, and I promise, nobody will ever do anything like that to you.”
She nodded, solemnly, and turned to Sokka. “I want to go follow my compass now.”
Sokka laughed, and scooped her up. She was still small enough to carry, but big enough to be unwieldy. “Tell you what, Princess Turtleduck, why don’t we go to the library, and we can look at the maps, and at a magnetic compass, and we’ll try and figure out which nation your soulmate might be from.”
And that was precisely what they did.